Chesterton’s book, What’s Wrong with the World, was supposedly written in 1910. But there is good evidence that it was actually written today.
Our society is experiencing exactly the crisis that Chesterton warned us about almost a century ago. There is a greater disparity than ever between the rich and poor. Our families are falling apart, our schools are in utter chaos, our basic freedoms are under assault. It affects every one of us. As Chesterton says, “Not only are we all in the same boat, but we are all seasick.”
But while we agree about the evil, we no longer agree about the good. The main thing that is wrong with the world is that we do not ask what is right. It is the loss of ideals that makes reform such a difficult task.
Some people say that idealism is impractical. But Chesterton says, “Idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence.” In other words, idealism is common sense. It is what the common man knows is right, in spite of all the voices telling him it is impractical or unrealistic or out-dated. And when Chesterton says idealism, he means the Christian ideal. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” It would mean the ideal house and the happy family, the holy family of history. It would mean making laws that respect the family as the most important unit of society, and laws which are moral and respect religious principles. It would mean the widespread distribution of property and capital to provide for greater justice and liberty. It would mean not being afraid to teach the truth to our children. But we have left the truth behind us. And instead of turning around and going back and fixing things, we rush madly forward towards we know not what, and call ourselves, “progressive.” Instead of the solid family and the church and the republic being held up as ideals, these things are now assailed by those who have never known them, or by those who have failed to fulfill them. “Men invent new ideals because they are afraid to attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”
Although this book is a work of non-fiction, Chesterton introduces us to two characters: Hudge and Gudge. Well, three characters: he also introduces us to Jones. Hudge and Gudge are the enemies of Jones. Simply put, Hudge is Big Government and Gudge is Big Business. And Jones? Jones is the common man. “This man Jones has always desired ordinary things; he has married for love, he has chosen or built a small house that fits like a coat; he is ready to be great grandfather and a local [hero].” But something has gone wrong. Hudge and Gudge have conspired against Jones to take away his property, his independence, and his dignity.
The home is the only place of liberty. “Property is merely the art of democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image…To give nearly everybody ordinary houses would please nearly everybody.” But in a society where most people cannot afford their own home, and they cannot properly support themselves but have to be someone else’s wage slave, easily sacked, easily replaced and displaced, having to rely on the government to supplement their needs, in other words, when they are totally at the mercy of Hudge and Gudge, it means enormous pressure is put on the family, and it means the society will crumble from the bottom up. The society is especially in danger when the common man, left reeling by the loss of religion, of home, of family, is not even sure what he wants any more.
Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for. Every man has a house somewhere in the elaborate cosmos; his house waits for him… But in the bleak and blinding hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected , he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires. For the first time in history he begins really to doubt the object of his wanderings on earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address.
One of the most famous lines in all of Chesterton’s writings is found in this book: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” For some reason, people puzzle on this. Or else use it to defend their own slovenly ways. But it is a ringing defense of the amateur, the person who does a wide variety of things out of love rather than one specialized thing out of mere professionalism. The person who best understands the “uproarious amateurishness of the universe” is the woman, the mother who has to be the first to explain the entire universe to a child. When the mother is pulled out of the home and made a specialist, working for Hudge and Gudge, the child is left to be raised by “experts.” Thus, both the mother and the child become narrower. And so does the whole society as the family of course is ripped apart. And so is every integral element of society torn apart from everything else. The world, says Chesterton, “is one wild divorce court.” Religion is banned from the classroom. So are the parents. So is common sense. Each subject is taught in a vacuum. Each profession is increasingly narrow. People more know more and more about less and less.
What’s wrong with the world? Take a good look around.
Also available in Vol.4 of The Collected Works.